Fixed term parliaments: whether 4 years or 5 we need a single political cycle

This evening, I caught the end of the debate on the third reading of the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill in the House of Commons, on BBC Parliament. Whilst the government carried the vote Clegg did seem to fumble on the issue of periodic clashes between future elections to the UK parliament and elections to devolved parliaments and assemblies.

The arguments for and against both the principle and length of fixed term parliaments have been well exercised. Personally I am in favour as I think it is perverse for the Prime Minister to be able to call an election whenever they feel it will benefit them – even if there have been well-cited examples of them making the wrong call. I also prefer 4 years (as it seems do most academics and other constitutional experts) rather than 5 but I’m relatively relaxed about that.

The key issue that the government does need to address, and which I hope the Lords will force them to give due consideration to, is that the country really needs a shared political cycle. Many of the MPs making the case for 4 years raised the point that we could align elections so that elections to parliament and devolved bodies were in different years. The key point here is not the period but the principle that all elections (councils, mayors, police commissioners, devolved bodies as well as parliament) have the same period. If the government really believe that 5 years is a better period than 4, then they should bring forward legislation to put all other elections on a 5 year cycle too.

The overwhelming advantage of a 4 year cycle is that all other elections in the UK (bar those to the European Parliament, which operates on a 5 year cycle) are already on a 4 year cycle. Together with it being the norm (as opposed to the maximum) for parliamentary terms, this means that a 4 year fixed term cycle would bring the least disruption at a time when all public servants have much else to focus their time on.

There is a related problem with the bill. It contains provision for early elections, which is understandable. However, following an early election the next election takes place 5 years later, messing up the cycle. An early election should be a special election for the remainder of the parliamentary term so as to maintain the cycle. Of course there can be a proviso that if there less than, for example, one year, of the parliamentary term remaining, then the early election covers the next parliamentary term – and so the subsequently elected parliament would sit for an extra year. (That’s another reason for keeping the fixed term to 4 years, btw, so that in early election circumstances the maximum would be 5, as now, not 6).

4 years or 5, it’s the government’s call. But they should pick one and align everything to it.

Social media: mixing business with pleasure?

The other day I created a facebook page for aQovia. All well and good, the functionality is a little basic but it ticks a box that technology companies seem to need to fill in these days. For me this is the first time I’ve mixed things up…

I’m not new to social networks. Whilst slow (amongst my university peers) to join Facebook – I was partly jaded by the fact that I’d been on so many of them before. I was a member of SixDegrees back in 1997. I’m not sure we called them “social networks” back then. They were more of a crowdsourced “Bacon number experiment” – though again I don’t recall “crowdsource” being in lexicon back then, and the Microsoft Word 2008 spell check doesn’t know about it either. Anyway, my point is I’m not a luddite when it comes to online stuff…

What I find difficult is the conflation of space: personal vs work, school, or whatever. People vary. Some of us like to keep our lives neatly partitioned, others prefer to see it all as one spectrum. Me, I’m the former: Not only do I keep things apart but I have multiple circles of friends (originating from different phases or places in my life) which I have no desire to bring together. For me it’s a way of maintaining the variety of life.

This is what riled me about creating a company page on facebook that wouldn’t have done if I was creating aQovia’s LinkedIn page. I see facebook as part of my personal space, whilst LinkedIn is professional. I don’t want them merged.

Ofcourse, this feeling is ridiculous and not just because, I could have, if I wanted to, used an anonymous profile (and I know plenty of people who have multiple accounts on facebook thinking one or more of them is anonymous…). No, it’s ridiculous because the nature of the Internet is such that everything is public. And more so because I have actually benefitted from the fusion – it’s amazing how a quick tweet or status update can get an unexpectedly useful response from someone you know in a different capacity.

The Internet has forced a change upon me but one, now that I’ve noticed it, is one that’s actually for the better. Will it affect me “offline”? I guess in some way it must have and will do so. Yet as we learn to identifiy and distinguish between the intimate and superficial – and recognise that it’s a potentially a perpendicular axis from online/offline, perhaps it’s better to maintain a spectrum of approaches.

Upon reflection I’m moved to wonder if I’m still a digital native. I’m certainly not a digital immigrant but I think I can now only claim to be a native if the classification is purely binary. With the pace of technological change and the emotional impact it can have I propose that digital generations, if there is any use for them, should now be measured in years or perhaps even months but certainly not decades.

Uninspiring, nebulous drivel – Barnet’s “Sustainable Community Strategy”

This evening I attended a Barnet Civic Network event at North London Business Park. It was new to me but many of those present (generally greying men) complained about the participation being dominated by the “usual suspects”.

The agenda was a consultation of the “Vision”, “Values”, and “Priorities” of Barnet’s Sustainable Community Strategy for 2010-2020. The values were okay and the priorities weren’t too bad but there was nothing inspirational. It was mostly nebulous waffle. The real problem was the dearth of any real vision. The supposed vision statement consisted of tired old phrases the simply described the status quo (good schools, low crime, etc.). I also couldn’t see anything remotely addressing the word “sustainable”.

Of course Barnet already has a 10 year sustainable community strategy, adopted in 2008. Cllr Robert Roms explained that we needed a new one now because much had changed since 2008 (new government, financial crisis, etc.) though when I asked what in the proposed strategy was actually different from 2008 the lead he was somewhat stumped for an answer! A couple of people on my table commented they had seen the same stuff 10 or 15 years ago. A quick web search now I’ve got home shows there was also a 10 year strategy agreed in 2006 which was also much the same.

Cllr Rams did seem keen to impress that he had some sort of vision, though I couldn’t quite discern what it was. He did ask me to get in touch with him to discuss further so I’ll email him and give him the benefit of the doubt for now. But this uninspiring, nebulous technocratic waffle is just another reminder of how hollow Town Halls have become.

An elected Mayor would bring focus and profile to civic leadership that would attract higher calibre politicians and also encourage them to be braver. Certainly Barnet needs a shake-up.

Why scrapping the M4 bus lane is bad for motorists

I’m no stranger to the M4 and the bottleneck around the bus lane at Junction 3, getting back into London is infuriating. The news been somewhat drowned out by benefit changes but Phil Hammond’s shamelessly populist announcement that the M4 bus lane will be scrapped is going to make things worse, not better.

The rationale for the M4 bus lane is poorly understood – and not helped by New Labour spinning it as an environmental measure when it was, and remains, primarily an important traffic management technique.

The reason there is a bottleneck on the M4 is that between junctions 3 and 2 the road reaches on elevated section, just two lanes wide on each side, and with a 40mph limit. It’s not hard to see that this would cause a bottleneck at the head of the a 70mph motorway with 3 lanes and a hard shoulder on each side. Widening the final section of the M4 is impractical/expensive/politicallly “brave” as widening an elevated motorway in London involves requisitioning and demolishing so much private property.

So the Highways Agency came up with a simple, yet ingenious measure. In order to manage the flow of traffic better they brought the narrowing of the road forward to junction 3, when much traffic is leaving the M4 anyway, and dropping the speed to 50mph (since raised to 60mph). That left them with a “spare” lane and rather than painting it with white lines (or planting trees or whatever) they decided to paint it red so that the few busses and taxis on the M4 could take advantage – and why not? Of course, the bus lane is under-utilised, if it wasn’t it wouldn’t solve the bottleneck!

Although the bus lane reduces the space available on the road it smoothes traffic flow: the well-respected Transport Research Laboratory’s research showed that despite increased traffic, peak-time journey times were actually reduced for all vehicles; off-peak times did go up slightly for cars, but all journeys were more reliable.

For more detail, including a graphical explanation on the M4 bus lane, see Chris Marshall’s explanation.

Phil Hammond’s announcement may well earn him some brownie points for seeming to oppose an “anti-motorist” measure. Yet the real anti-motorism here is this surrender of logic and evidence-based policy to shamless populism.